Case Number 18027: Small Claims Court

THE BEST OF SPIKE JONES

Infinity Entertainment // 1954 // 208 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // January 7th, 2010

The Charge

"This number sold over a hundred records..."

The Case

If you've listened to jazz or big band on the radio, a Spike Jones and the City Slickers number or two might have slipped onto the playlist. What you get is some very good music, with a few extra sounds. Extra sounds? Those include unusual instrumental juxtapositions, like trombone and piano, along with lots of banjo. They also include washboards, cowbells, and guns, not to mention all sorts of crashes and interruptions. Even Jones' plaid suit could be called loud, although it wasn't an instrument, and you can't see it on the radio.

The Spike Jones Show gave viewers the chance to see the City Slickers at length from 1954 to 1961 (although the IMDb listing suggests that was less than continuous). A three-disc collection, The Best of Spike Jones, provides more than four hours of highlights from the series:

Disc One
* Volume One
"I'm in the Mood for Love," "Holiday for Strings," "Cocktails for Two," and "You Always Hurt the One You Love" are among the songs. There's also an appearance by an all-guy all-girl orchestra.

* Volume Two
"Stranger in Paradise" and "That's Amore" are among the songs. Also featured are a country number performed on plates, a Russian medley, a prison sketch, and guest Eddy Arnold.

Disc Two
* Volume Three
"Cold, Cold Heart" and "Changing Partners" are among the songs. Howdy Doody and Zasu Pitts guest.

* "A Musical Wreck-We-Um": "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," "Flight of the Bumblebee," "All I Want For Christmas," and "Yankee Doodle" are among the songs. Perez Prado guests, and there's a Foreign Legion sketch.

Disc Three
Two pilots, featuring the Foreign Legion sketch and "Wild Bill Hiccup," are featured. The best part of these isn't the sketches, but the patter that goes on between sketches and musical numbers.

The musicianship and overall energy of Spike Jones' City Slickers are infectious, and the band puts just about everything into a number. It's a combination of silly slapstick and serious instrumental work, even when the instrument is plates or milk bottles, that's bound to get some laughs. This was done in the early days of television, before music videos became commonplace, but Jones has quite a visual sense, as the contraption with all his "instruments" in front of him indicates. You'll see his feet turn into hands to play the piano while his hands are handling another instrument. You'll also see when a train and a horse race show up (through the miracle of stock footage) in a rendition of "The William Tell Overture." Not only that, but his band members are visually striking themselves; there's a guy with a bowl cut, a guy with tall, frizzy hair, and so on.

It looks like these came from kinescopes, with the scratches and flaws you'd expect from vintage black-and-white, but the sound isn't bad.

There are some weak spots in the collection. The one or two mainly verbal sketches included are rather slow, and a stereotyped Asian impression pops up twice. For fans, the lack of background information, especially on all the band members who get funny solos, will be disappointing. Fans might also be disappointed to realize they already have part or all of the material on the first two discs on VHS; the copyrights are from the Eighties.

Jones' style is carried on in a big way by Peter Schickele, the man behind P.D.Q. Bach, but I don't think there's anyone else around today who brings slapstick so completely into a musical act. Not only that, but Billy Barty (Sigmund and the Sea Monsters) was a regular, which should pique your interest if you're a Generation X-er. Jones isn't quite one-of-a-kind -- I've seen similar numbers recently in a Kay Kyser musical -- but his style of visual music-making is too good to become a lost art. This set is mostly aimed at nostalgic fans, but any budding musicians out there should take a look at Jones' sound. After all, it was Rolling Stone that called Jones the "Master of Musical Mayhem," as the box proudly notes.

The Verdict

Not guilty. This one should sell at least, um, two hundred copies...

Review content copyright © 2010 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile
Studio: Infinity Entertainment
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 208 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* TV Pilots

Accomplices
* IMDb: Spike Jones
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005066/

* IMDb: The Spike Jones Show
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0138263/combined